UPDATE Report: Some districts not spending low-income funding on target population

LITTLE ROCK — State funding that public schools districts receive based on their concentrations of students living in poverty are not being targeted toward low-income students at nearly half of the districts in the state, according to a report presented to a legislative panel Tuesday.

The report also said that less than 11 percent of the funding is being used for tutoring and student support services, the two things for which consultants hired by the Legislature said in 2003 the money should be used.

National School Lunch, or NSL, state categorical funding was created by the Legislature in 2003. It is not part of the federal school lunch program but is titled after that program because the state uses eligibility for free and reduced lunches as a measure of poverty in determining how much money to provide each district.

Arkansas school districts received $192 million in NSL state funding in the 2013 fiscal year, according a report prepared by the state Bureau of Legislative Research and presented Tuesday to the House and Senate education committees.

Researchers surveyed all 238 districts in the state and asked them whether their top goal in spending NSL funding is to raise the achievement of economically disadvantaged students, to raise the achievement of students who are not performing on grade level or to raise the achievement of all students.

Of the 228 districts that responded, 31 percent said they target poor students, 20 percent said they target students not performing on grade level and 49 percent said they target all students.

The Legislature originally created NSL funding based on recommendations by consulting firm Lawrence O. Picus and Associates. The firm, which was hired by the Legislature to help devise a new funding formula for the state’s public education system, said additional funding was needed for districts with high concentrations of students living in poverty and recommended that the money be used for tutoring and student support services.

According to the report presented Tuesday, during the 2012-13 school year districts spent 10.5 percent of NSL money on tutoring and student support services. Specifically, they spent 2 percent on tutoring, 8.1 percent on counselors, social workers and nurses, and 0.4 percent on parent education.

Among the other purposes on which NSL money was spent were classroom teachers, 8.15 percent; curriculum specialists, 21.2 percent; teacher’s aides, 8.5 percent; and transfers to other funding categories, 11.3 percent.

Rep. Randy Alexander, R-Fayetteville, said he was concerned about the findings.

“I don’t think there’s any excuse for spending less than 11 percent of a program on the actual things that the program was designed for,” he said.

State Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell testified that all of the districts’ NSL spending, including spending on teacher salaries, is allowed under legislation approved by the General Assembly.

“We have a litany of statutes that give districts this flexibility, so we can’t say, ‘No, you can’t do that,’” he said.

Kimbrell said it is up to the Legislature to determine what the priority for the funding should be.

“You as a body, as the General Assembly, are going to have to help us define what it is you want to spend this money (on). Is it to raise all boats? Is it to raise just struggling students? Or is it to meet the needs of poverty-stricken children? Because we have such a litany of uses that the law allows,” he said.

Jerri Derlikowski, director of education policy for the nonprofit group Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, testified that the group believes programs that benefit all students should be funded outside of the NSL categorical funding.

“If you think they need more money for all of their kids, then give it to them. But if we really are focusing what we’re doing for the kids that have high needs, then that money really ought to be used for the kids with high needs,” she said.